Freedom Fighter or Fool? Jury’s Out on Arrested Ethereum Developer Virgil Griffith

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Freedom Fighter or Fool? Jury’s Out on Arrested Ethereum Developer Virgil Griffith Dec 3, 2019 at 20:15 20:15 UTC Virgil Griffith speaks at Consensus: Singapore 2018, photo via CoinDesk archives Freedom Fighter or Fool? Jury’s Out on Arrested Ethereum Developer Virgil Griffith Did Virgil Griffith go too far with the idea of ethereum as a "world computer"? The Ethereum Foundation researcher was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Thanksgiving for traveling to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) earlier this year. Griffith attended the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in April and is accused by U.S. authorities of giving the North Korean regime information on how to use cryptocurrency to evade sanctions . He's expected to be released on bail in the coming weeks. Griffith’s arrest sparked debate across Crypto Twitter about whether giving a lecture with public information about open-source projects, and potentially suggesting how to use them, constitutes a violation of economic sanctions or an act of admirably spreading ethereum’s gospel of global reinvention. Across the ethereum community, the jury is still out as to whether Griffith’s choices are heroic, reprehensible or just plain foolish. Some are comparing him to the cypherpunk folk hero Ross Ulbricht , currently serving a life sentence for operating the Silk Road black market. On the other hand, critics like journalist Laura Shin are tweeting that Griffith could only have helped the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In a statement, Griffith's lawyer, Brian Klein of Baker Marquart, said, "We dispute the untested allegations in the criminal complaint. Virgil looks forward to his day in court, when the full story can come out." Much remains unclear, including what exactly went down at the April conference in Pyongyang. Alejandro Cao de Benós – the Spanish-born DPRK booster who helped organize the conference – told CoinDesk in June that the idea of creating a DPRK cryptocurrency was raised at the event by foreigners who belonged to "organizations related to the top five cryptocurrencies." However, another attendee, Fabio Pietrosanti, said this week that the conference did not touch the subject of sanctions evasion , or much of anything significant for that matter. Even before the trip, though, Griffith openly expressed interest in arranging crypto-related equipment shipments to North Korea in 2018, Reuters reported citing anonymous sources. He was also not shy to publicize his travel plans, using Twitter to invite Spankchain advisor and porn star Brenna Sparks to travel with him. In June, Griffith tweeted there was a “market opportunity” for North Korea to create a cryptocurrency exchange without know-your-customer compliance requirements. The FBI complaint claims Griffith also floated the idea of sending cryptocurrency between DPRK and South Korea, but the transaction never happened. ‘Special Projects’ Griffith, 36, has long been a contentious yet beloved figure in the broader tech world. He has irresistible dimples and a patient manner when explaining tricky computer-science tradeoffs. In 2008 the New York Times described him as a “troublemaker … and a magnet for tech-world groupies.” His initial fame came from creating WikiScanner , a publicly searchable database that linked anonymous Wikipedia edits to the organizations where those edits seemed to originate. He’s since become the center of several controversies related to ethics and computer science. In 2013, he befriended Vitalik Buterin. Like so many privacy-minded technologists hanging out in certain corners of the internet, they were both young bitcoiners looking to make their mark with this new blockchain technology. Buterin founded the Ethereum Foundation in Switzerland in 2014 to fund the development of the then-nascent cryptocurrency he created. In an interview in May, Griffith said he offered private feedback but declined to join the project because it felt too ambitious, technically speaking. "I've known Vitalik longer than anyone else in the foundation,” Griffith said, describing himself as a mentor. Indeed, some in the ethereum community said they consider him a paternal leader to many project participants. Griffith said he was one of the first people to see Buterin’s early drafts of the ethereum white paper, when Griffith was still a Ph.D. student at Caltech. Around that same time Buterin was revising the paper, Griffith posted his first tweet about wanting to visit DPRK. He finally joined Buterin’s foundation as “ head of special projects ” in 2016, after he was rebuked by many in the Tor community for contacting the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and authorities in Singapore. Although Tor browser users seek to anonymize themselves by bouncing traffic across a dizzying mesh of participants, Griffith collected and offered to sell parts of users’ IP addresses, requested onion hostnames, timestamps and HTTP response codes. Grif...